“The latest fashion… is absolutely necessary for a painting,” artist Édouard Manet announced in 1881. “It’s what matters most.” When most people think of Impressionism, they may think of flowers, haystacks, water lilies, dancers, and even nude bathers, but rarely of haute couture caught on canvas. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through May 27, 2013, focuses on how Impressionists from the 1860s through the 1880s depicted the latest fashions as a sign of a new spirit and freedom—the same spirit and freedom that led to their then-radical art movement.
As Manet suggested, in many ways, showing the latest fashions in art was what mattered most. For modern audiences who tend to look past the clothes to the people and things, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity reminds us of how the Impressionists “dressed” for success.
Fashion as we know it today started just around the same time the Impressionists began working. Paris emerged as the style capital of the world first in the mid-1860s as new innovations such as the department store, Prêt-à-Porter (i.e., ready-to-wear) clothing, and the fashion magazine created and catered to a public appetite for fashionable wear. As the exhibit’s press release points out, “those at the forefront of the avant-garde—from Manet, Monet, and Renoir to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Zola—turned a fresh eye to contemporary dress, embracing la mode as the harbinger of la modernité.”
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